November 22, 2019
What’s in a name? On Language, History and Place Names in SVG – pt 1 of 3

by Paula Prescod

Place names or toponyms, as they are formally called, are like signposts that tell us a great deal about a nation’s past. They are a rich source of information on the way political and sociolinguistic powers played out among the different groups of individuals who shared the land throughout its history. Further still, they testify to the linguistic contacts which occurred in these territories, to the geographical features in which these contacts played out, as well as to the motives behind choosing these names or the attitudes individuals had to the places they named.

If we compared maps of St Vincent and the Grenadines at different eras, we would have a striking indication of the linguistic and ethnic groups that relished the privilege of naming. Byres’ 1773 plan of St Vincent reveals several place names that are not English-sounding. Many of them are indigenous place names that remind us of the Carib past on SVG or the French-sounding place names of their putative allies. On maps from subsequent periods, like the one drawn by Lucas in 1823, there are far fewer indigenous names. Throughout the centuries, indigenous place names have been replaced by colonial ones, a process which can be referred to as toponymic silencing.

From a socio-political standpoint, it could be argued that attempts to assimilate and acculturate the indigenous population, the African slaves and the indentured workers who came primarily from Madeira and India resulted in the stark absence of place names that would remind THEM of their roots. For indeed, in many instances, the English-sounding names were simply calqued onto SVG to suit the fantasies of those who had travelled thousands of leagues away from their birthplace. It may well be that those who bestowed the place names were bent on holding on to something that kept their homeland close, symbolically, so to speak. After all, places ground individuals and constitute a powerful marker of identity.

Several examples of transplanted place names come to mind. Scores of places in England are formed with the suffix -borough which designates a fortified place. Other spelling variants of -borough are -bury, -berry and -boro. In SVG, we find Shrewsbury, Queensbury, Queensberry and Edinboro. Although these places might be considered strategic locations overlooking the waters of SVG – for instance Fort Charlotte is overlooking Edinboro, and Queensberry Point is on the southernmost tip of Union Island – there have never been forts per se at these locations.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, one of the most productive place naming suffixes is -shire, which denotes a district or county in the “Old English” of the Middle Ages. Typically, then, places named Berkshire Hill and Dorsetshire Hill would suggest that Berk and Dorset are towns in their respective counties, much like Gloucestershire and Yorkshire in England are the counties where the towns Gloucester and York can be found. Such is not the case in SVG. Needless to say, St Vincent, itself a name imposed by the colonial administrators to replace the indigenous name Iouloumain or Yurumein, was subject to the vagaries of the colonial gentry.

Moreover, the case of Dorsetshire Hill is an interesting example of how pronunciations and spellings can transform names over time. My guess is that a lot of Vincentians grew up saying “Dorstruh” Hill. In the UK context, Gloucester and Worcester sound somewhat like “Glostuh” and “Worstuh” to the Vincentian ear. It may well be that the “Dorstruh” pronunciation was not a local invention but rather that it was imported. With time, as the word became more often written, we resorted to spelling pronunciation. Today, the standard Vincentian pronunciation “Dorsetshuh” is commonplace.

In other cases, place names reflect personal names, be they landowners, governors or civil and military administrators whose legacies in the nation are esteemed to be worthy of commemoration.

Thomas Fitzhugh was awarded land around the Richmond Vale area. Today, Fitzhughs can still be found on the map. George Henry Sharpe owned the Redemption estate. Redemption Sharpes is known to all and sundry in SVG. Edward Flemming Akers owned substantial land in the area still known as Akers. And we can relate Stubbs, Choppins, Frenches, Lowmans and Montrose to properties owned in those areas by Mr Stubbs, Thomas Choppin who owned property in Harmony Hall, Charles James French, George Lowman and council member, Andrew Rose. In her 1831 transcription of Ashton Warner’s Narrative, Susanne Strickland records that Ashton Warner was a slave on the Cane Grove estate owned by Mr Ottley. Ottley Hall is indeed in the vicinity of Cane Grove. Landowners from France also left their mark. We owe Questelles to Jean-Baptiste Questel, probably an absentee slave owner who had settled in St Bart.

With respect to personal names being used to designate places, there was a tendency to add the letter ‘s’ like in Choppins, Redemption Sharpes and Lowmans, or sometimes ‘es’ as in the case of Frenches. These letters indicate that the personal names were followed by the possessive marker (apostrophe ’s in writing). By the 18th century, it was commonplace to mark possession this way in writing. In a sense, this would mean that if we were dealing with writing, these would be rendered Choppin’s land, Sharpe’s estate or Lowman’s property but in spoken language the possessive apostrophe cannot show up. With time, the apostrophe mark fell out of use in written language leaving us with the bare ‘s’ or ‘es’. However, adding the possessive marker to the personal names was not systematic because Samuel Greatheed left us simply Greathead, the La Croix family left us La Croix and the Ottley family left us Ottley Hall. It is obvious that locals hesitated about whether to express the possessive form or not. Do we continue to say Young’s Island, or should we simply refer to the island once owned by William Young as Young Island? The official SVG map has opted for Young Island.

To be continued next week